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Payless doesn’t need to trick bargain-hunting young people with faux-luxury hoaxes

Rude marketing stunts like “Palessi” are totally missing the point.

Payless ShoeSource At Christian Siriano - Runway - Fall 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
Payless heels at Fashion Week in 2013.
Arun Nevader/Getty Images

If you have been to or walked past a Payless ShoeSource, you know it has roughly the aesthetics of an optometrist’s office. It also has the smell and carpeting of a LensCrafters, and for whatever reason, in 2006, changed its logo from a funky orange-black-yellow bubble letter situation (gorgeous!) to an orange-and-pale-blue ‘90s robo-font. Like a computer manual.

Payless ShoeSource, of course, sells affordable shoes, carrying brands like Champion, Airwalk, SmartFit, and Dexter, as well as lower price-point Payless-exclusive versions of American Eagle and Christian Siriano brands. It is not cool, and that’s just the way it is, but it did popularize the concept of “buy one, get one free” during its peak in the ’90s, and so it holds a place in the hearts of suburban moms and young professionals everywhere.

Now, it seems, the company is a little salty about that unglamorous reputation. As reported by AdWeek, Payless recently (anonymously) invited a bunch of influencers to the grand opening of a new luxury retailer called Palessi, in the shell of a former Armani store. It was full of $20 heels and $40 boots, but obviously the setting and the fake Italian-sounding name confused people, and they were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the shoes (in what seems like some kind of auction situation).

The highest offer was reportedly $640, an 1,800 percent markup from the shoe’s original price, and Payless pretended to ring up more than $3,000 worth of shoes before revealing the prank and recording everyone’s faces for a series of commercials that will run on TV and all of the brand’s social channels throughout the holidays. Gotcha!

The entrance to Payless ShoeSource at the Coastland Center Shopping Mall.
The old Payless logo, very ’90s, very back-in-style. Why not bring it back?
UIG/Getty Images

Doug Cameron, chief creative officer of the DCX Growth Accelerator, the agency Payless partnered with for the stunt, told AdWeek, “Payless customers share a pragmatist point of view, and we thought it would be provocative to use this ideology to challenge today’s image-conscious fashion influencer culture.” He also referred to the stunt as a “social experiment,” which is language I do not care for outside of horror movies.

But let’s go back to “today’s image-conscious fashion influencer culture.” Payless didn’t close hundreds of stores and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year just because customers started listening to hot people on Instagram. It was primarily a victim — one among many — of customers choosing online shopping over brick-and-mortar, and of Amazon owning Zappos. It was also a victim of its own refusal to stop looking like an optometrist’s office.

I am not knocking Payless! Or, I am, but not from the position of a fashion influencer. I buy almost all of my shoes from either Target or Payless because I have really pretty shockingly large feet for a woman and almost no other stores carry my size. It’s fine, and I don’t care. It is of so little importance to me that my footwear be nice, and that’s probably the sort of customer they should have, as what they sell is not-very-good shoes at an affordable price. And when I have to replace them I am not offended because I knew what I had done by buying them in the first place.

What’s weird about this prank is the terrible Instagram, which has 203 followers. What’s weirder is what it tells us about how Payless thinks about the general market of people who buy shoes — namely, that most people don’t understand value and pricing and packaging and don’t think about what goes into making something cost what it costs, but just gravitate toward status symbols impulsively. I’d argue that most people think about money almost all of the time?

Not to be dramatic, but everyone I know will divide the cost of a new sweater by the number of times they can imagine wearing it, and then email a cost-benefit analysis to 15 of their closest friends, plus their general practitioner, before purchasing it. Millennials are the biggest demographic of coupon cutters!

And earlier this month, Vox’s Chavie Lieber discussed the future of “brandless luxury” with the CEO of Italic, a company that’s selling leather jackets and sunglasses and handbags from the factories that make products for designers like Gucci and Prada and Celine but without the culturally-prized logos, and at a fraction of the cost.

One Facebook ad resulted in a 100,000-person waiting list. One of the company’s investors, Daniel Gulati, a partner at Comcast Ventures, told Vox, “The days of being able to markup a handbag one thousand percent are coming to an end, because more shoppers are putting an emphasis on value.”

Italic is not alone, as Chavie wrote: “Brandless co-founders Tina Sharkey and Ido Leffler have gone to great lengths to talk about the future of brandless products, and they’ve received $240 million in funding from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, demonstrating that the brandless concept has huge potential.”

Payless isn’t brandless at all; they’re a brand. And the branding they have isn’t appealing to the demographic they seem to want. Perhaps that isn’t the customer’s fault.

 A pedestrian walks by a Payless Shoe Source store on April 5, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Kansas-based discount shoe retailer Payless Shoe Source has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will close nearly 400 of its stores.
The Payless logo used to be gorgeous! Why have they done this!
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last year, Suave pulled off a stunt similar to Payless’s, fooling Racked’s Cheryl Wischhover with a new luxury brand called “evaus.” That’s Suave spelled backwards, plopped into pale peach Glossier-inspired packaging. It’s the same joke: You haven’t been buying our affordable and good products because you haven’t been charmed by our packaging, you idiots.

“Packaging and design matters,” Cheryl pointed out. “It just does. Suave’s packaging is really kind of garish.” If we’re so dumb for not buying Suave (which I also do, thanks!), that means they are actually very, very bad at selling it.

“Why doesn’t Suave repackage its products to be more attractive and look more upscale?” Cheryl asked. “While we’re at it, a name change is probably in order, too. ‘Suave’ is a word you’d find in a romance novel from the ’80s.” Amazing. I suggest “Goop.”

And I suggest pulling up the carpets at Payless and installing some nice pine.

Payless CMO Sarah Couch told Adweek the goal of the Palessi stunt was “To remind consumers [Payless is] still a relevant place to shop for affordable fashion.” But the only people they invited were influencers! Remind me, with a return of the BOGO coupon.

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